In 2012, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods were both stellar at wide receiver for the Trojans, racking up a combined 194 catches for 2,567 yards and 25 touchdowns. Generally regarded as the top receiving duo in college football, their production was the highlight of an otherwise up-and-down season for USC.
And while Woods and his school-best 252 career receptions are now off to the NFL, Lee -- Woods' former Gardena (Calif.) Serra teammate -- is back in a Trojans uniform this spring, giving USC coach Lane Kiffin perhaps the nation's most dynamic game-breaker. Coming off a sophomore campaign that saw him come away with the Biletnikoff Award after setting school marks in both single-season receptions (118) as well as receiving yardage (1,721) -- the 6-foot, 195-pounder has been impressive, when healthy, once again this spring.
But for Lee, and the rest of the USC offense to really take off in 2013, the Trojans will need to find some other receiving options capable of filling the void left by Woods, particularly with a new quarterback at the helm.
For wide receivers coach Tee Martin, finding those potential contributors has been his focus this spring, and with a golden opportunity to make an impact, it's something the five players in competition -- Nelson Agholor, Victor Blackwell, George Farmer, De'Von Flournoy and Darreus Rogers -- are more than well aware of.
"With Robert Woods leaving, those are some big shoes to fill, but we have a plethora of receivers with great talent," said Flournoy, a fifth-year senior. "You just have to trust in your technique and just go out there and make plays. You've got to put it on film, because film doesn't lie."
Added Agholor, a sophomore: "Us losing Robert is crucial, but it does bring opportunity for a lot of us, and just for a lot of us to understand in his role as a leader and great receiver, and we need to follow in his footsteps and rise to the occasion."
In fact, it's been Agholor who emerged as a budding star through the first six spring practices -- collecting four receptions for 101 yards and one touchdown in this past Saturday's scrimmage. Showcasing the same big-play ability he first put on display in games against Stanford and Oregon as a freshman, he's made a name for himself not just with his play, but also for his work ethic.
"I come out here every day with the mentality that I want to progress," Agholor said. "That's all I'm worried about. I'm worried about coming out here and finding a way to separate myself from the performance that I had the day before."
Not surprisingly, Agholor has jumped to the front of the pack in the battle for the role as the No. 2 receiver, but with the other wideouts stepping up their game this spring as well, nothing is set in stone, and Martin is hoping that he'll eventually have a whole collection of receivers that he can count on during the course of a game.
"Nelson has played more and has been more successful than the other guys, but it's still a competition," Martin said. "Last year, he showed that we can trust him with the ball in his hands, and then the next guy…the third guy, the fourth guy, that's what the spring is all about. We're looking for that next guy to step up and take his game to the next level. But the competition is still wide open for that job. We're going to compete every day and the best man will get it."
And while the Trojans' wide receiver corps is a talented bunch, if you take Lee out of the equation, it has less than 30 career receptions returning. Having come out looking rejuvenated and determined, it's the diversity of their skills that has Martin especially optimistic when it comes to their future.
"We have some interesting skill-sets," Martin said. "They're all different, from their size, speed -- some are short-area quickness guys, some are long, speed guys and some are big, physical guys. So, I'm excited about the variety that we have in our room."
Farmer, another former Serra star, has put together arguably his best spring as a Trojan. Standing 6-1 and 205 pounds, he has size to go along with sprinter's speed. After battling through numerous injuries in his career, he's given every indication that this could be a turning point in his career, amassing 74 receiving yards in the team's first spring scrimmage.
In Flournoy, the Trojans have a quick and shifty option, and he's also a veteran leader who has added stability to the group, both on and off the field. Blackwell is a taller receiver with athleticism, and according to Martin, it's his improvement in terms of his technique that has caught his eye most this spring. And then there's Rogers. Big and aggressive, he enrolled at USC in December but has already made a name for himself, particularly over the course of the last week, with some highlight-reel plays during practice.
"We always compete," Martin said. "Everything is about competition...not just for me to them, but it's for them within each other. I just like their attitude towards work, and they want to get better, and that's all I can ask from them."
"This offense doesn't want to just see a couple of guys step up, they want to see the whole unit and everybody else on that field play at a higher level than they played at last year," Agholor added. "If we all stay at the same level that we were at last year, that's just maintaining, and that's even regressing in a way because our competition is getting better. So we always want to get better."
With that competitive mindset guiding them, there's reason to believe that whether it's Agholor, Blackwell, Farmer, Flournoy, Rogers or even Steven Mitchell, a Class of 2013 signee set to arrive this summer, Lee and the USC offense just might find the support that they're looking. But with only nine practices left this spring, there's still a ton to prove, and not a lot of time to do it -- a fact Martin constantly reminds his players of.
"I was just telling them that from the bowl game to training camp, we only get to coach them 15 times," Martin said. "You have to be a leader as far as taking care of things on your own on your own time, and taking responsibility for your production on the field. And it's a personal challenge as well as a group challenge. So I'm looking forward to them proving to us, and to me as a receiver coach, that I don't have to worry when these six guys are out there playing. They can just go out there and compete, and produce and do what we ask them to do the way we coach it, and the production and the numbers will come."